Archive for the ‘Fractal Weirdness’ Category

Drawing the Line

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Everyone knows that drunk drivers cause deadly car accidents. This is because alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive safely. So it is against the law to drive under the influence of alcohol.

Everyone knows that texting while driving causes deadly car accidents. This is because texting distracts your attention from driving safely. So it is against the law to text while driving.

Everyone knows that speeding causes deadly car accidents. This is because going faster than conditions and one’s ability permit make you unsafe. So it is against the law to speed.

And now West Virginia is looking to outlaw driving while wearing Google Glass. Because presumably having the internet in your heads-up display would distract your attention from driving safely.

Of course, these laws are all trying to prevent people from driving unsafely. So why not, instead of a whole jumble of laws dealing with specific causes of unsafe driving (and having to be written to deal with new, unforeseen causes), why not have a single law punishing… you know… unsafe driving?

Because these particular causes of unsafe driving are worse than any other? If you say so. But even then, they could just be grounds for enhanced penalties for violating the basic law. No need for separate laws.

The actual reason is that “unsafe driving” is a very subjective concept. It’s really an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, not readily reduced to formulas. Different people have different abilities, physiologies, training, etc., so one person could drive safely with distractions/speeds/alcohol intake that would make another person a deadly menace. If all you’ve got is a cop who can testify that “this person was driving unsafely because of X Y Z,” when it’s not necessarily so that X Y or Z equal “dangerous, then you’re not going to get a lot of convictions.

And so we draw a line. Forget individual variations — as a matter of law, if you do X, Y or Z while driving, you are automatically a menace, and that’s that. The police officer doesn’t have to make a judgment call about whether you were actually unsafe. All he has to do is determine whether you did X Y or Z.  It’s so much easier to prove that you had crossed the line, than to prove that you were actually being unsafe.

Of course, this is overbroad and unjust. Because where we draw the line is arbitrary. Someone driving 70 is no more dangerous than someone going the limit of 65, but that’s where we drew the line.

Where we draw the line depends. For speeding, it’s sort of a lowest-common-denominator kind of thing: We pick a speed that, for this road, most drivers should be able to manage safely. And by “most drivers” we mean “poor drivers.” Because as a society we’ve decided that we’d rather make it easier to get a license, and we’re willing to accept a certain number of traffic fatalities per year in exchange for letting more people drive. So sure, there are plenty of people who could manage it safely at a higher speed, but they’re going to have to obey the same line drawn for everyone else.

For alcohol, it’s more a lobbying kind of thing: Victims and families of victims of drunk driving are understandably upset that people are committing reckless homicides and being treated like it was just oopsie an accident. So they lobby lawmakers to make driving with any alcohol in your bloodstream a crime. And over the years, the amount of alcohol required gets smaller and smaller, because who wants to lobby for the alternative? Who wants to be the guy pushing to make the law go easier on those killers? And so the arbitrary line keeps ratcheting down because nothing is there to prevent it.

For things like texting, it’s more of a zero-tolerance thing: We can’t ever know which text or other distraction is the one you could do safely or the one that would cause a pileup on I-70. So we just outlaw all of them. (If we were intellectually honest, we’d simply outlaw driving while distracted, which is the actual problem. But that would fill the jails with moms who were yelling at kids, people driving while furious after an argument, girls putting on makeup on the way to work, truckers eating tacos, and the like. And we don’t want to do that, do we?)

It’s not just traffic laws — the law is filled with examples of “bright line” rules. All are arbitrary. Some try to strike a balance, some are purely political, and some are unthinking zero-tolerance rules. But the lines have been drawn. And that’s the important thing.

The important thing is that the line is drawn somewhere. Because it’s not about justice. And it’s not about safety.

It’s about not having to make subjective decisions.

And now you know.

Understanding the law

Friday, March 8th, 2013

A lot of the law is extremely formulaic. True, human intelligence is required to spot issues, devise strategies, and (most importantly) persuade decisionmakers. But in its actual application, the law is often little more than a series of IF-THEN decisions. A computer could be programmed to do it. This is just as true of corporate taxation as of advanced constitutional law. A law student could outline those courses with nothing more than a flowchart and do okay on the exam.

Knowing the formula is important. It’s specialized knowledge that you usually have to go to law school to get. But it’s only knowledge. It’s not understanding.

It’s like baking a cake. If you know the recipe, you can go step by step through the process and get a decent cake on the other side. If you don’t know the recipe, you’re likely to wind up with a big mess. But knowing a recipe that works isn’t the same as knowing why it works. It’s not going to help you if your ingredients suddenly change, or something new is added into the mix, or you have to use an oven with a very different temperature. In that case, if you want to make a cake, you’re going to have to understand the chemistry of what’s going on, the effect that the ingredients and how they are combined and the heat and the time have on the final result.

Knowledge is the what. Understanding is the why.

Most students can demonstrate their knowledge on an exam, and they’re lumped together in the curve. It’s the rare students who demonstrate their understanding who get the outlier As, however.

In fact, there are professors out there who will announce to the class that the final exam is going to cover things that never came up in class. Topics that were never discussed. Issues that aren’t in any of the books. The students will have to say, based on their understanding of why the law is the way it is, what the answer in that unfamiliar area ought to be.

These are awesome professors. If you ever get one, cherish the experience. Because you’ve lucked into someone who teaches the why, as well as the what. And you are going to be so much better equipped to deal with the law as it changes.

The law does change. Whatever field you practice in, the law is going to change during your career. If you know where the law is coming from, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. And more importantly, whichever way it goes, you’ll get why. You’ll understand it better. You’ll be able to use it better, advise your clients better, persuade a court better.

So how does get this understanding?

What you’re looking for is policy. An underlying philosophy or purpose that explains the statutes and cases. What were the lawmakers and judges trying to do? What was the point of view that drove how they did it?

You’d think this would be easy — just look at the legislative record to see all the arguments for and against, the court opinions spelling out in excruciating detail precisely where they were coming from.

But if you try doing that, you’ll soon learn it’s not easy at all. The stated reasons for statutes, regulations and caselaw are inconsistent as hell. They’re all over the map. And what’s more, people are only human. The reasons we give for our actions are rarely the same as our true, unstated motives. We may not even be fully aware ourselves of the actual policies we’re acting on — most of the time because we haven’t reflected enough to actually know what they are, and so they remain unconscious, subliminal. And our brains are wonderfully adept at justifying after the fact.

So it’s a puzzle. The narrators are not telling you the truth. They’re not lying to you, but they’re not telling you the truth. The trick is to pick out the clues from what they say, from the situations they’re reacting to, from the problems they’re trying to solve, and from (most importantly) what they actually do. It takes a fair amount of insight into one’s fellow human beings to solve this puzzle.

And this is what sets apart the merely adequate law professor from the superstar. The adequate professor makes sure you understand what the various disparate laws happen to be. The superstar gives you an insight that explains them all (or most of them, anyway).

Which way would you prefer to learn them all?

Now, there are lots of ways to explain what’s going on. How do you know which theories are best?

As with any other field of study, the simplest theory that explains the most data is best.

So for example, you might have a ton of cases that seem to be all over the place, if you just take the judges at their word. They seem to be espousing a given principle, but their decisions keep pushing the law in a different direction. That tells you that the real reason isn’t the one they’re saying. Maybe it’s emotion. Maybe it’s a desire for a certain outcome no matter what. Maybe it’s just pandering to a perceived public opinion. Maybe it’s just a backroom deal.

And those surface reasons give you a clue to the unspoken philosophy behind them. In a criminal case where the court is performing some impressive legal gymnastics, it could simply be that the desire to punish this guy is more important than any protections the law might have given him. (That’s the opposite of the rule of law, by the way. A good example of saying one thing but doing another.)

You can also watch as repeated reliance on the spoken, but incorrect, principles leads to bizarre outcomes. The exclusionary rule is a good example, where the courts keep saying it’s about deterring the police from violating your rights, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. The rule is intended not to make the police think twice but instead to ensure that violations of your rights don’t get used against you. And you can see how repeated insistence on its deterrent purpose erodes the rule — because in situation after situation the court recognizes that there is no significant deterrent effect, and so says exclusion wouldn’t matter here.

This kind of thing goes on in almost every field of the law.

The trick to understanding is actually formulaic: 1) Look at the facts and the outcome; 2) Look at the stated justifications; 3) Note any disconnects; 4) Apply your own understanding of human nature, various philosophies, history, culture, etc., determine likely explanations for the disconnects; 5) Select the explanation that explains the most data with the least complexity.

Go on, try it!

A PhD in Law?

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Yale Law School has announced that it will now offer a PhD in Law — apparently the first time a doctoral program in law has been offered in the United States. One can only ask “what for?”

Ostensibly, the purpose of a PhD is to advance human knowledge. You get that degree for figuring out something new, and proving it to the satisfaction of people who know what they’re talking about. At the end of the day, humankind gets a little smarter, and you get to call yourself a doctor of philosophy.

Looked at that way, there’s not a whole lot of room for PhD studies in the law. The law is a manmade thing, not something out there to be discovered, and an unholy number of people make it their business to know all of its various ins and outs. In other words, there’s not much “new” to the law to figure out. The exception is for research into how the law is applied, and philosophical attempts to identify the underlying policies that explain why the law is the way it is. This is what legal scholars already do. They don’t need a PhD to do it. Lowly JD candidates do it when they write notes for their law reviews. Scholars do it when they write books and law review articles. Bloggers do it when they’re not bitching about the job market or SEO. Even amateur cartoons have been known to take a stab at it. There’s just not a lot for a PhD to work with here, and it’s already being done elsewhere.

Of course, that’s looking at it the wrong way. In the real world — particularly outside the hard sciences and mathematics — the PhD is just a prerequisite for a career in academia. If you want to be a professor, you’d better get that doctorate. It’s not about advancing human knowledge; it’s about training to be a “scholar,” however your academic field defines it.

Looked at that way, Yale’s decision makes slightly more sense. The Law PhD would just be one more way of proving your bona fides as a scholar, another way to compete for a job as a tenured law professor. There are far more people who’d like to be a law professor than there are available positions, so the competition is insane. The usual “publish or perish” rules apply here as much, if not more so, than anywhere else in academia, so getting enough articles into some law review or other is one requirement (which explains the proliferation of law reviews that few bother to read — the demand is not for the finished product but for the publication service). But that’s just a starting point. To further weed out candidates, law schools require advanced academic degrees. The J.D. is an entry-level vocational degree, nothing more. They want people with an LL.M in the area of law they teach. More and more, they want people with a PhD in (as the Yale announcement says) “economics, history, philosophy, or political science.” These are what the law is about, after all (and what you should be studying in undergrad — not pre-law — if you want to be best prepared for law school). But a Law PhD is probably not being offered just as another way to prove one’s sholarly ability.

The real reason is probably just supply and demand — and not demand from tenure candidates. The demand is from law school administrators, who want more and more ways to weed out those candidates. Because there are more and more people trying to break into law school academia. There are tons of people with LL.Ms and PhDs from other disciplines. But who has a PhD in law? Nobody. If it existed, it would be a great way to tell which candidates have learned how to be academics, which ones are already “one of us.” Yale is providing schools with a way to be more demanding of professorial candidates, and thus make the school’s job easier (while giving them something more to brag about.) Just as readers aren’t who law reviews are for, the PhD candidates aren’t really who this program is for. They’re not the customer, they’re part of the product.

So let’s make the ivory tower a little higher.  Of course, that will only exclude more people who have actually practiced law. But that’s what adjuncts are for.

Better Criminal Lawyering through Smart Risk-Taking

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Judgment is the criminal lawyer’s stock-in-trade. The ability to assess the risks of a situation, and choose the better course of action, is the value that lawyers bring to the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter if they’re defense attorneys negotiating a deal or fighting it out at trial, or if they’re prosecutors deciding whether and what to charge — their value is their judgment. The better the judgment, the better the lawyer.

It’s therefore critical that criminal lawyers have some understanding of how and why people take risks. In advising a client inclined to take a bad risk, the lawyer can’t really change that perception without knowing what’s causing it. And such an understanding also helps one spot one’s own inclinations to error before it’s too late.

This is not common sense. (In fact, common sense is usually the enemy here.) It’s insight. The ability to see how people act, and realize — aha! — why.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are amazingly smart people out there who do that all day. When you find one with real insights about why people take the risks they do, you’re probably gonna want to listen.

That’s why we’re taking a moment to point you to Danny Kahneman (that’s his picture up there).

Who is Danny Kahneman, you ask. You’re not alone. If you’re not an economist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he won the Nobel Prize for basically inventing the field of Behavioral Economics. If you’re not a psychologist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he’s considered “one of the most influential psychologists in history, and certainly the most important psychologist alive today.” If you’re not a foreign-policy wonk, you can be forgiven for not knowing of his significant ideas on the evaluation of risks in wartime. He’s one of the most insightful and relevant people nobody’s ever heard of.

As it happens, a lot of his insights are directly relevant to the practice of criminal law. Trying to decide the likely outcome of that trial? You’re probably (more…)

Not Ready for Prime Time: Brain-Scan Reliability in Question

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Almost from our first post, we’ve written here about developments in brain-scan technology and its applicability to criminal law (see here, here, here and here, for example). So needless to say, the past nine days have been of great interest, as the research behind neuroimaging’s claims has come into hot dispute.

Now, just because our motto is “truth, justice and the scientific method,” that doesn’t make us qualified to assess the merits of the underlying science. Our observations on the actual science wouldn’t be worth the pixels. But fortunately, as with most such disputes, the issue isn’t so much the data as the math — the statistical analysis being used to make sense of the data. And we’re somewhat confident that we can at least report on such issues without getting them too wrong.

So briefly what’s going on is this:

First, lots of neuroimaging papers out there, some very influential, see apparent connections between brain activity at point X and mental state A. But what are the odds your reading of X was just a fluke, and the real spot is somewhere else, over at Z? If you do enough tests, you’re going to see X every now and then just by chance. So you have to figure out what the chances are that X would be a random result, instead of the real thing, and apply that correction to your statistical analysis. As it happens, however, for a long time the neuroimaging folks weren’t using an accurate correction. Instead, they were applying a lax rule-of-thumb that didn’t really apply. It’s since been shown that using the lax math can result in apparent connections to variables that didn’t even exist at the time.

On top of all that, as neuroscientist Daniel Bor mentions in his excellent (and much more detailed) discussion here, there’s reason to suspect that (more…)

“Collars for Dollars” Plus “Occupy Wall Street” Equals What?

Friday, November 18th, 2011

The Facebook post above was posted to Reddit earlier today.  We don’t know if this is an accurate copy or not, the internet being what it is, but it’s close enough to what we’ve heard actual officers say that it is useful to illustrate a couple of points.

First, the whole “Collars for Dollars” mentality we’ve mentioned before. In short, the NYPD is a unionized labor force, whose workers get paid a base salary plus overtime. The base salary is barely sufficient to meet the expense of living in NYC (so many cops choose to live pretty far away from the city, cutting any ties to the communities they police, with attendant consequences). The way for an officer to make some real money is by working overtime.  That lovely, lovely overtime is what pays for their mortgages, their kids’ schools and the occasional night on the town. The way to make overtime is either (1) by making arrests or (2) working a “detail.”

Arrests generate overtime because, at the end of one’s shift, one gets to stay at the precinct for many more hours filling out the reams of attendant paperwork, securing evidence, and helping a prosecutor draft the various complaints. If any of the collars were for felonies, ideally they have been timed so that the resulting grand jury presentation will be held on the cop’s regular day off — RDO for short — which gives the cop 8 hours of overtime even if he only showed up at the DA’s office for half an hour.

Details are out-of-the-ordinary assignments where an event requires extra police to provide security, police not otherwise assigned to a normal duty — police working overtime or on their RDO. Details can range from providing a police escort for a visiting dignitary, to lining the streets for a parade, to dealing with an unruly mob. Details are a great source of overtime.

You see this in the Facebook discussion, which appears to include more than just one NYPD officer. The original poster is on his RDO, and he’s hoping the OWS protesters start acting up so he can get called in to do a double tour and get 15 hours of overtime pay (for getting the chance to hit some protesters). Another jokes that he hopes they don’t start rioting until his shift starts that night, presumably so he can maximize his overtime.

There’s nothing wrong with police officers joking about stuff that, to the rest of us, might sound obscenely offensive. It is often a tough job, often horrific, and black humor is how people of all walks of life deal with such things. The post about pretending to be a protester, shoving people from the inside, shouting invective, and leaving a BB- or paintball- gun behind? That one’s probably a joke (although — and probably because — such things have been known to happen).

But there are other wishes expressed here which, though certainly cathartic, are probably more sincere. The desire to “rock,” or get physically violent with a protester, comes out strong here. Why? Because the protesters are the enemy.

That’s our second point: To the police, it’s “Us against Them,” and (more…)

Because Nino Said Yes, the Chief’s Saying No? To What Extent Does a Justice’s Vote Depend on the Others’ Votes?

Friday, November 11th, 2011

The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court often have important repercussions around the world, so it’s perhaps not surprising that is studied by lawyers and academics far beyond the Court’s jurisdiction. The results of such studies are often more useful for their insights into how others see us, than for any particular insights into how things work here. That’s because typically, the concepts and even the words we use to describe them just don’t translate all too well. Then again, they’re often misunderstood right here at home — the adjectives “liberal” and “conservative,” for example, have very different meanings depending on whether they’re modifying a political or jurisprudential noun, but try telling that to the average journalist.

Every now and then, however, you get a foreign study that — while still misinterpreting concepts and terms — nevertheless makes a nifty point.

One example was published just a couple of days ago: “Justice Blocks and Predictability of U.S. Supreme Court Votes,” (Nov. 9, 2011) by Spanish academics Roger Guimerà (of the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats in Barcelona) and Marta Sales-Pardo (of the Departament d’Enginyeria Química, Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona). In their paper, Guimerà and Sales-Pardo tried to figure out how any given justice’s votes are affected by the votes of the other justices — not why or how, but whether the vote of Justice X depends on how each of the other justices are voting.

This is something that common wisdom claims happens all the time, such as the trope that Thomas tends to simply follow Scalia’s lead. There is usually some basis for the common wisdom, but it is never entirely accurate (in fact now there’s even talk of Thomas being a thought leader in his own right).

But all these comparisons tend to only compare one justice to another, or maybe blocs that tend to vote together on certain issues. The Supreme Court, however, is made up of nine justices, who all interact with each of the others in different ways. That’s 36 separate relationships. It’s even more complex when you try to figure how any relationship is affected by the other 35 relationships, and so on.

So enter Network Theory.

This is Guimerà and Sales-Pardo’s bailiwick. As NewScientist puts it, they “study complex systems, such as the metabolism of living cells, by considering them as networks of interacting components.” It’s often hard to tell what’s really going on in there, when there are many things interacting in often poorly-understood ways, and when you don’t have all the data you’d like to have. Network theory is a way to put the pieces together and figure out what the relationships probably are. Think of it as a sophisticated form of statistical analysis. It has been applied to hard sciences like biology and physics, to complex entities like the internet and the human brain, and even to the soft sciences of sociology, politics and economics.

Guimerà and Sales-Pardo determined that, if you look at how (more…)

Who Are the Real Victims of Insider Trading?

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

 

Last week, the prosecution and the defense filed their sentencing memoranda in the Rajaratnam case.  Raj was convicted of 14 counts in all — 9 counts of securities fraud, and 5 conspiracy counts.  So what do the parties think that’s worth?  The feds asked Judge Holwell to sentence Raj in the range of 19.5 to 24.5 years.  The defense didn’t make a specific request, just said it ought to be “well below” what the feds want.

So 20 years, huh?  Wow, he must have been an awful bad guy.  Must have hurt a whole lot of people, right?

After all, a mugger in a dark alley only takes one person’s wallet.  A “white-collar criminal” can steal from thousands of people — and takes not just their wallet, but their life savings!  Right?

Well, hang on.  Did Raj actually steal from anyone?  How many investors did he really harm?  And did any of them really lose enough money to warrant locking someone up till we all have flying cars and jetpacks?

Judging from the feds’ sentencing memo, you bet.  Just look at this, from the introduction:

Raj Rajaratnam’s criminal conduct was brazen, arrogant, harmful, and pervasive.  He corrupted old friends.  He corrupted subordinates.  He corrupted entire markets.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, Rajaratnam operated as a billion-dollar force of deception and corruption on Wall Street.

Wow, that sounds awful.  So the victims are… who again?

But wait, there’s more:

Rajaratnam repeatedly leveraged the power of money and his position as the head of a 7-billion dollar hedge fund to induce friends, employees, and associates to participate in his criminal activities.  Although already rich, Rajaratnam did this to drive up his personal wealth through profitable trading in his hedge fund.  He did it to make sure that investors did not pull their money out of Galleon and to attract new money to his fund.  And he did it because of his egomaniacal drive to triumph over his competitors on Wall Street.

Again, wow.  (The feds sure like their adjectives, don’t they?  Comes off a tad over-the-top, if not insulting to the intelligence.)  So he was trying to increase his wealth, gotcha.  But at whose expense?  Guess we have to read more:

That was what he cared about: money and success.  What he did not care about, at all, was the extensive harm he left in his wake: harm to the capital markets; harm to the average, ordinary investors who played by the rules; harm to the companies whose secret information was misappropriated; and harm to the lives of those he corrupted.

Well, that sounds a little more like it… but again, who was harmed, and how?

Although particular investors on the other side of Rajaratnam’s illegal trades are not easily identifiable, there should be no question that ordinary investors paid the price for Rajaratnam’s crimes and that public companies were harmed by Rajaratnam’s repeated theft of corporate secrets.

Oh for crying out loud.  Are they joking?  Stripped of its demagogical rhetoric, this translates to “We have not identified any actual victims.  But we shouldn’t have to.  It’s obvious that lots of people must have been harmed, even if we don’t know who they were.”

If they don’t know who — or even whether — anyone was actually harmed here, how in blazes do the feds justify asking for 19.5 to 24.5 years of imprisonment?  Here’s how:

[The feds want that much time because they feel it is] proportionate to the historic nature of his crimes.  He is arguably the most egregious violator of the laws against insider trading ever to be caught.  He is the modern face of illegal insider trading.

That’s it.  That’s all.  “Because this is the first time we’ve ever caught someone so red-handed,” and “because this case got so much press.”  Those are the sole reasons why they are looking to put this guy away until he dies of old age.

Really?

-=-=-=-=-

For the record, we’re predicting (more…)

Even Worse than Eyewitness IDs: The Police Sketch

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Everyone knows that eyewitness identifications are completely reliable — that is, you can count on them to be wrong.  (Everyone does know this, right?)  If the person being identified is a stranger, the chances of a correct I.D. are slim to none.  There are lots of reasons for this.  Eyewitnesses rarely have or take the time to study and memorize a person’s features.  People of one race are awful at identifying people of another race, largely because the parts of the face which differ from person to person are different from race to race — which is why people of another race often “all look alike,” because you’re looking for cues in parts of the face that don’t vary much in that other race.  And people just generally suck at remembering details consistently and accurately.

Still, sometimes an eyewitness description is all you’ve got.  And so what if the eyewitness didn’t see every detail of the face — at least they can describe the parts they did see.  Trained sketch artists take the partial descriptions provided by eyewitnesses, and using sophisticated software they can put together composite sketches that show what the bad guy probably looks like.

We’ve all seen them on the TV news, and various crime dramas would lead one to believe that they’re pretty useful.  And now with IdentiKit software, the details can be adjusted here and there until the witness goes “that’s him!”

But we never hear, after the fact, whether the drawing wound up being all that accurate.  There’s a good reason for this.  The odds of the drawing being accurate are so low, they are below statistical significance.  You’ve probably noticed this yourself, on the rare occasion when a police sketch has later been released with a photo of the culprit — the resemblance even then is usually pretty slim.

A thorough study of composite sketches by Charlie Frowd, of the University of Stirling in Scotland, had participants study a photograph of an individual for a full minute, then describe the face for a trained police sketch artist.  How well could people then recognize the faces in these sketches?  The recognition rate was as low as 3%.

Three percent.

MIT scientists Pawan Sinha, Benjamin Balas, Yuri Ortrovsky and Richard Russell have a great article here that describes problems with composite sketches and ways to make the software better.

The image above was taken from that article.  A trained and experienced IdentiKit officer was given actual photographs of celebrities with distinctly recognizable faces.  He was given all the time in the world — no pressures — and worked directly from the photos themselves instead of having to rely on another person’s descriptions.  And those sketches you see up there are the best the software could do.

Well, maybe the problem is with what the IdentiKit tries to do.  After all, it just works on individual features one at a time.  The eyes, nose, mouth, etc. are worked on in isolation.  Humans don’t look at features in isolation, though.  So there’s another kit out there called EvoFit, that’s more like a photo array that gets to evolve.  The witness is shown 72 random faces.  She picks out the six that most resemble the culprit.  The facial features of those six are then scrambled and recombined to make 72 new pictures.  The witness then picks out, again, the six who most resemble the culprit.  The process is repeated once more to get an image that pretty much matches what the witness saw in her mind.

Now, there are tons of problems with this method.  The suggestivity of showing pictures is pronounced — when witnesses choose photos from an array, they often choose not the one that closest resembles the culprit, but instead pick the one that looks different from the rest — and when a picture has been chosen, that image often replaces the image in the witness’ memory.  She now remembers that face as being the face of her attacker, even though it wasn’t.  This method of scrambling digital faces poses the same problems.

Still, it is more reliable than the IdentiKit.  Instead of a 3% recognition rate, the EvoKit attains a whopping 25% recognition rate.

One in four.

-=-=-=-=-

People suck at identifying strangers.  Period.  And yet in-court eyewitness identifications are the nuclear bombs of trial.  The victim points at the defendant and says he’s the one what done it, and you can see the jurors’ minds turning off.  So far as they’re concerned, this trial’s over.  The defense lawyer’s got a lot of work to do, now, to overcome that.

What would be just and fair, of course, would be to allow some evidence of the unreliability of eyewitness identifications in general, and the reasons why IDs can be wrong, so that the defense can tie them to specific testimony by the eyewitness to show that she made the same mistakes.  Not asking the jury to make a logical fallacy that, because it happens a lot in general, it must have happened here as well.  But actually drawing the jury’s attention to specific reasons why this particular testimony is not trustworthy, supported by expert testimony on the unreliability of IDs.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen, though.

Making a Mockery

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

As our first bureau chief, a wise and gifted man, would often say to us:

“Oy.”

Last Friday, we blogged about how this Rakofsky fellow had done something very foolish.  After being reported to have done some pretty bad lawyering, and being roundly disparaged by the blawgosphere as a result, he made things worse by shining a spotlight on it all and filing a lawsuit against everyone who’d written about him.  This included the American Bar Association, the Washington Post, and most of the better blawgers out there.  We pointed out how very foolish this was indeed.  And (with tongue firmly planted in cheek), we bemoaned the fact that we’d missed the opportunity to have commented on his behavior the first time, and were so excluded from the honor roll named in his (very badly drafted) complaint.  He could have let it all blow over, worked to rebuild his reputation, and maybe even have been forgiven for a newbie screwup.  But he’d made it worse, screwing up even more.

Well, he’s screwed up again.

He and his lawyer Richard Borzouye (apparently a former member of Rakofsky’s own firm in… Connecticut? Really?) must have worked all weekend long.  Because today, Tuesday, they served an amended complaint on the original 74 defendants… plus six or seven more.  Including us!  Apparently, if you commented on the original foolish complaint, you got added to the new one.

The allegations against us in particular are just dumb.  A pithy commenter online summarized the allegations as that we “have brought the legal profession into disrepute by making fun of” Rakofsky and Borzouye.  There’s more to it than that, however.  According to the amended complaint, our Friday post was written “with malice and hate, in a grossly irresponsible manner,” and made us “actors in the intentional infliction of emotional distress.”  You can’t make this stuff up.  We tried to read the relevant paragraphs out loud to a paralegal, but were laughing too hard.

We couldn’t help but be reminded of this old sketch (which also used to have us in stitches way back in our misspent youth):

“The moon mocks me…” Cracked us up every time.

Anyway, if they thought our Friday post was mocking enough to warrant an amended complaint, we’re sure they’ll think the same about this one.  (And all the other commentary that’s been posted by others today, as well.) So that’s probably going to lead to yet another amended complaint.  And more apparent mockery.  And more complaints.  And so on.  And so on.

Their process server will be pleased.

Feeling Left Out

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

You’ve probably heard, by now, of this Joseph Rakofsky kid.  You know the one — the newly-licensed lawyer who took on a murder trial without any trial experience, who is alleged to have told his investigator to “trick” an eyewitness into denying having seen anything, and whose performance was so bad that the judge had to declare a mistrial.  You know the one — the guy who, after causing that mistrial and getting reprimanded by the judge, went online and bragged about the mistrial like it was some kind of success.  You know the one — the one who quickly became a laughingstock, as soon as the story got picked up by the ABA Journal, the Washington Post, and half the blawgosphere.

Well, you’d think he’d have wised up.  You know, let it all blow over.  Take the time to rebuild his reputation with hard work and diligence.  Memories are short.  Old news gets buried even on the seemingly permanent internet.  It was already happening — it’s only been a month or so since the brouhaha, and he’d already dropped off the radar.  It could have all been forgotten — even perhaps forgiven, if he’d manned up, admitted his error, and moved on.

But no.

Instead of doing the smart thing, this Rakofsky kid demonstrated once again some amazingly poor judgment, and filed a lawsuit.  Against the ABA Journal, the Washington Post, and half the blawgosphere.  In other words, everyone who covered or commented on his doings.

Brilliant.

So now, everyone who’s already demonstrated a willingness to write about his conduct, now has yet another thing to write about.  And you’d better believe they’re gonna.  We expect to be sipping our coffee in the morning and chuckling ruefully at responses by some of the numerous defendants.  As they’re some of the most heavily-read blawgs out there, we expect that by this time tomorrow, the name “Rakofsky” will have attained the same tragic/comedic status as “Santorum.”  Yet another shining example of the Streisand Effect.  Well done.

And of course we’re nowhere to be seen on the complaint.  Lucky us, we were on trial and not posting too much, and it blew over pretty fast.  But now being on that complaint is going to be something of a badge of pride.  And we’re not there.  Dammit.  Maybe he’ll amend his complaint to include us now, or maybe one of the defendants can do one of those… uh, civil procedure thingies… where you bring someone else into a case?  Whatever.

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For those who want to read the complaint (and we can’t advise it — it’s so badly written it’s actually painful to read) you can find it on Scribd here, under the delightful title “Rakofsky v Internet.”  Sure to become an instant classic, never to be forgotten.

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UPDATE: It seems there already is a badge of honor, compliments of Amy Derby.  Link.

Profiling Doesn’t Work? More Profiling!

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

When we were just starting out in the law, we frankly had no problem with the concept of profiling.  Not racial profiling — that’s just a logical absurdity along the lines of “most people who commit crime X are of race Y, therefore it’s reasonable to suspect people of race Y of committing crime X.”  We’re talking about profiling as the concept that a significant number of people who commit crime X exhibit the combination of traits A, B and C, which is a combination rarely encountered otherwise, and therefore if one were to look for people exhibiting traits A, B and C, then one might have a better chance of catching someone guilty of crime X.

Intuitively, this sounds reasonable.  If we were to know, for example, that certain serial arsonists are motivated by a sexual mania, that these arsonists tend to remain near the scene to masturbate or so they can masturbate to the memory later, that they tend to have spotty work and relationship histories, and that they tend to have crappy cars — well then, there’s nothing wrong in letting the cops scan the crowd of spectators at a fire, question any who seem to be getting a kick out of it, and investigate those who are single, unemployed, and drive a beater.  (This is an actual profile, by the way.  We didn’t make this up.)

And emotionally, profiling sounds wonderful.  Catching a psychopath is often difficult, because they don’t play by the same rules as the rest of us.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some, er, rules that we could follow — a formula of some kind — that would make it easier to identify and catch them?

As we said, in our early years we thought this was a great concept.  Whenever we encountered some findings that certain traits had been identified with this type of serial killer, or that type of terrorist, we thought it was fantastic.  But we didn’t think too critically about it.  And for sure we never bothered to look for the underlying data, much less examine the methodology used to determine how strongly these traits correlated with perpetrators of that crime.

The problem is, nobody else was doing that, either.

Profiling only works if the profile is accurate.  That should go without saying.  But it has become plain over the years that the various profiles out there are not accurate.  They are not based on actual data, but instead only on anecdotes.  (And as we like to say, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”)  Nor are these profiles based on any significant sample size.  No profiling study ever did even a simple regression analysis to determine whether any particular trait happens to be a meaningful variable.

We figured this out soon enough, of course.  After our first couple of years with the DA’s office, we were already joking about the silliness of profiles.  It was almost a party game to figure out which psychopathic profile we and our friends happened to fit (secure in the knowledge that hardly any of us were really psychopaths).

And the rest of the world soon caught on.  The Onion did a piece entitled “Crime Reporter Finds Way of Linking Warehouse Fire to Depraved Sex Act.”  Malcolm Gladwell wrote an outstanding piece in 2007 called “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy,” in which he solidly debunked the whole profiling scam, showing how there’s no science or statistics behind it, and even the data it’s based on is mostly useless.

It’s now fairly common knowledge that criminal profiling is about as useful as a Tarot deck.  So of course the FBI has stopped using it, right?

-=-=-=-=-

Wrong.

As a matter of fact, they’re expanding!  Just as the feds have (disastrously) tried to use street-crime investigative techniques like wiretaps to go after white-collar offenders, they are now (equally idiotically) starting to use criminal profiling to go after people for white-collar offenses.

Matthew Goldstein wrote an excellent piece on this for Reuters this week, called “From Hannibal Lecter to Bernie Madoff: FBI profilers famous for tracking serial killers are turning their attention to white collar felons.”  This (and the Gladwell piece linked to above) should be required reading for any white-collar defense lawyer now practicing.  When the Galleon case first came down, we were one of a handful of people doing white-collar defense who also had plenty of wiretap experience; now, of course, more of us are learning it the hard way.  Hopefully, with this new profiling issue, more of us will be prepared to deal with it ahead of time.  (And perhaps even nip it in the bud.  Like Barney Fife, we’re a big fan of bud-nipping.)

The agents in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit are the ones who profile serial killers and the like.  “The hope is,” reports Goldstein, that they “can get into the minds of fraudsters and see what makes them tick.”

“This originally started out as an attempt to find a way to prevent and detect Ponzi schemes,” said Peter Grupe, the FBI’s assistant special agent in New York in charge of white collar investigations.  “But it developed into (more…)

Hey, feds, get off of my cloud

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Our jury’s still out, and there’s so much stuff to catch up on.  There’s the 5th Circuit’s denial of Jeff Skilling’s appeal, even though the Supreme Court had struck down the “honest services fraud” charge last summer.  We were so ready to write something about it yesterday, but work intervened, and now we’re not in the mood.  Maybe this weekend.

Instead, we’re all intrigued about the Senate hearings earlier this week on whether federal law enforcement ought to get a warrant before doing any search and seizure out there in the cloud.  Apparently, the Obama administration says the warrant requirement is just too much of a hassle.

The term “cloud computing” covers a lot of things, but for these purposes we’re talking about people storing data not on their own hard drives, but out there somewhere in the ether of the internet.  Of course, “out there somewhere” means “stored on someone else’s servers.”  Which means it’s there for the taking (or destruction) if those remote servers were to be compromised.  And of course, that means it’s out there for the seeing if law enforcement decides to go poking around in the cloud.

As the law currently stands, if an email is more than 180 days old, the feds are allowed to snag it without a warrant, under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  In yet another bit of Orwellian fractal weirdness, the ECPA was designed to ensure that online communications had just as much privacy protection as anything in the offline world.  (Given the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections in the brick-and-mortar world, a cynic might be tempted to crack that the ECPA has lived up to its expectations.)

As Vermont senator Patrick Leahy put it last September, when the Senate first starting considering changes to the ECPA, the statute

was a careful, bipartisan law designed in part to protect electronic communications from real-time monitoring or interception by the Government, as emails were being delivered and from searches when these communications were stored electronically. At the time, ECPA was a cutting-edge piece of legislation. But, the many advances in communication technologies since have outpaced the privacy protections that Congress put in place.

Today, ECPA is a law that is often hampered by conflicting privacy standards that create uncertainty and confusion for law enforcement, the business community and American consumers.

For example, the content of a single e-mail could be subject to as many as four different levels of privacy protections under ECPA, depending on where it is stored, and when it is sent. There are also no clear standards under that law for how and under what circumstances the Government can access cell phone, or other mobile location information when investigating crime or national security matters. In addition, the growing popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, present new privacy challenges that were not envisioned when ECPA was passed.

Simply put, the times have changed, and so ECPA must be updated to keep up with the times

Think of it this way:  You’re storing your emails on a third party’s servers.  Isn’t there some lessening of your privacy expectations in that situation?  And on top of that, until maybe six or seven years ago, it wasn’t that outrageous to deem emails left on a third party’s servers for more than six months — instead of storing them to one’s own hard drive or local server for preservation — to be “abandoned.”  AOL users lost their emails after just a month or so.  If you didn’t actively save it to your hard drive, you didn’t want it.  (Forget, of course, the user’s reasonable expectation that the email would no longer exist in the first place.  Do not waste brain cells wondering whether one can abandon something that one believes to have already been destroyed.)

The point is, the law sort of made sense back in the 80s.  And it still kinda made sense when Google was new and Facebook was still in the future.

But now, things have changed.  In ways that are both dramatic and obvious to anyone who might be reading this post.  Now, by default, the vast majority of users do not store their emails locally (if they even know how to do so).  Emails are almost always accessed through a third party’s servers.  Almost nobody downloads their emails — and even if they do, the original remains on the server.

The vast majority of users expect that their emails, protected by their usernames and passwords, will remain private.  Even though the emails are stored out there in the cloud, the ordinary reasonable expectation is that they are private.

As we all know, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the search and seizure of stuff where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, unless law enforcement gets a warrant based on a showing of probable cause to believe that particular evidence of a particular crime will be discovered by the search.  (For those of you desiring a quick primer on the various exceptions that apply, you can certainly do worse than to listen to N. Burney and G. Mehler’s brilliant CLE lecture, “Search and Seizure in 60 Minutes“)

The exceptions to the Fourth Amendment essentially boil down to situations where the evidence would cease to exist if a warrant were sought, or there’s some other thing we want the police to be able to do (such as make sure people are safe) that might be deterred if they weren’t allowed to use evidence observed in the process.  None of the exceptions are based on a policy of “we probably wouldn’t have probable cause to search in the first place.”

But that is precisely the policy offered by the Obama administration this week.  We kid you not.  Here’s associate deputy attorney general James A. Baker, testifying on why the administration doesn’t want to have to get a warrant to search the cloud:

In order to obtain a search warrant for a particular e-mail account, law enforcement has to establish probable cause to believe that evidence will be found in that particular account. In some cases, this link can be hard to establish.

And if they aren’t allowed to search in cases where they cannot establish probable cause in the first place?  The consequences would be dire, he (more…)

An Endless Trial

Friday, March 11th, 2011

We started yet another trial this week, and it’s looking like it will continue into the first week of April.  Not our longest trial ever, but fairly lengthy for a state case.  But at least it’ll be over before the trial of Raj Rajaratnam, which also began this week, and which is expected to last through the beginning of May.

But these are nothing compared to the trial of Charles Taylor, former head of Liberia.  This is the same guy who ran for election with the campaign slogan (not making this up): “He killed my ma / He killed my pa /But I will vote for him.”  Probably a thinly-veiled threat that those who didn’t vote for him would get the same treatment.

Taylor first came to prominence in 1980, when he took part in the coup led by Samuel Doe.  Whose government he soon ripped off in a massive embezzlement scheme.  He fled to the U.S., got picked up and thrown in prison, and made a daring prison escape before he could be extradited in 1985.  He high-tailed it to Libya and the protection of Muammar Gaddaffi, and went through some terrorist training camps.

With funding from Gaddaffi, he organized a rebellion against the Liberian government in 1989.  The civil war would rage for seven years, utterly destroying the country.  Slaughter, fear and lawlessness made Liberia the classic “failed state.”  There was no government, only destruction.  (A State Department official we knew at the time said it was no good trying to reach anyone in charge there.  “The phone’s just going to ring and ring, because there’s probably bullets flying through the office and they’re hiding under their desks.”)  The word “horrifying” doesn’t begin to describe what was going on throughout the ’90s there.

In 1997, Liberians elected him president in the vain hopes that this would avoid any more civil war.  But within two years, it was raging again.

But none of this is what he got in trouble for.

Apparently, Liberia wasn’t exciting enough, so he got involved in the horrors over in Sierra Leone.   During his own civil war, Taylor took advantage of Sierra Leone’s instability to found a rebel group (funded with Sierra Leone diamonds, and manned with conscripted children) to launch a civil war in Sierra Leone.  Because the government there was so corrupt, it had no real resources, and there was pretty much no economy.  So they couldn’t really fight back.  Still, they wound up having their own brutal civil war throughout the 90s.  A large Nigerian-led UN force finally intervened and restored peace, finally disarming the rebels in 2004.

Meanwhile, the Special Court for Sierra Leone managed to file an indictment against Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity, based on what he did in Sierra Leone.

He was indicted in 2003.

His trial just ended today.

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Even if you take into account the fact that he hid out in Nigeria until finally being arraigned in 2006, and the fact that the trial proceedings themselves didn’t really begin until 2007, we’re still talking a four-year trial.  That’s a long time to hear a case.

And the trial isn’t really technically over, anyway.  Just the evidentiary part is over.  The judges are going to take the next several months before rendering their verdict.

This thing ain’t ever going to end.

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Whether he’s guilty or not — and we haven’t seen the actual (more…)

Online Advice

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

We’ll admit to a guilty pleasure.  Sometimes we surf over to Avvo and check out the questions people are asking criminal lawyers here in NY, and the answers various lawyers are providing.  It can be cringe-worthy, but once in a while it can be instructive.

We cringe when people ask for actual legal advice.  We cringe harder when lawyers venture to offer it.  We cringe the most when someone basically admits to a crime in posing their question, for all the internet to see.

We like it, though, when someone is looking for basic information, and they’re asking about something we haven’t come across in our own practice.  That happens often enough to keep us surfing back at least once a week.  There’s always room to learn, even if we’re only learning that we’re ignorant of something.  (And there are certainly areas of criminal defense where our ignorance is complete.)

Many of the questions, however, are just wasting space by asking the same thing that’s been asked over and over again.  The place really needs to put up a FAQ section.  Stuff like no, New York law does not provide for the expungement of criminal records.  Yes, having sex with someone under 17 is against the law.  No, there is no such thing as expungement here.  Yes, you do have to go to court.  No, we still don’t do expungement.  Yes, it would be a good idea to get a lawyer.  You’re not getting your record expunged.  And other things like that.

And far too many of the answers are just as much of a waste of space.  When the answer is obviously “go get a lawyer, your question cannot be answered here,” some lawyers will go ahead and offer some fluff instead about what law seems to apply, or just make a sales pitch.  Sometimes, though, there’s nothing more you can say beyond “go get a lawyer.”

We don’t answer many questions ourselves.  It’s usually not worth our time, frankly, and nothing could induce us to give actual legal advice to someone based on an incomplete query over a public forum.  But now and then we’ll see a question that (1) seeks basic information, rather than legal advice, (2) has been sitting unanswered for a while, and (3) we actually can provide a useful response.  That’s becoming rarer and rarer these days, however.  Mostly because there are fewer and fewer questions remaining unanswered.  Which is a good thing, all in all.

One thing that really bugs the crap out of us, however, is how Avvo sells this whole question thing as (more…)